Historic Structures

Dumbarton Oaks Mansion, Washington DC

Date added: August 17, 2010 Categories: House Mansion

When William Dorsey, a lawyer, real estate speculator, and local politician, purchased 22 acres and built his house atop the heights of Georgetown, he had mostly likely picked the most desirable site in Georgetown. The location (actually outside of the legal boundaries of town) offered a commanding view of Georgetown, its houses, warehouses, piers, and the Potomac River. Conversely, its prominent location along Back Street (now R Street) assured that Dorsey's house would be highly visible, letting everyone know that he was a successful and wealthy resident of Georgetown.

Dorsey's estate had originally been part of the much larger, early eighteenth-century land grant known as Rock of Dumbarton (also spelt Dunbarton), which Thomas Beall of George slowly sold off, creating much of the parcels that are upper Georgetown.

By the year 1800, Georgetown was already starting to decline as a port and its citizens were making their wealth in real estate speculation as well as trade, according to historian Constance M. Green, Dorsey (1764-1819) started speculating in Georgetown real estate even earlier, in 1793, buying lots near the Potomac River and he continued buying real estate, first near the harbor but later farther north, until 1806 when he bought the Washington Bowie estate. He also speculated on land in Washington, D.C. on behalf of investors and for himself.

Dorsey's prominence in Georgetown was reflected in his public and private positions: Recorder of the Georgetown Corporation, member of its Common Council, and a judge.

As befitted a prominent real estate speculator, Dorsey's house was distinctive and monumental as described by Walter Muir Whitehill:

"The distinguishing features were slightly receding central bay for the entrance, and countersunk panels of stone between the horizontal rows of twelve-pane windows. Similar countersunk panels, not unlike some used by Charles Bulfinch in Boston about that time, are to be seen on the nearby house at 3339 N Street. One can only guess at the form of the entrance and -shape of the roof, for the earliest -- surviving view is a photograph taken in the eighteen sixties, which shows a building that already had been considerably modified. Inside was a spacious central hall, running through the house, separating two large drawing rooms, each with its fireplace. "(p.15)

Dorsey's initial financial successes, which enabled him to buy the land and build the house, did not last. He was forced to sell the house and move back-to Maryland.

In 1805, Dorsey sold the estate to Robert Beverley. Beverley bought the property with his mother's money and, in return, he agreed she could live there with him. Beverley lived at the estate only slightly longer than Dorsey as Beverley returned to Blandfield, the family's Virginia estate at the start of the War of 1812. In 1816, his mother moved to another house in Georgetown and only his children occasionally occupied the house. According to Whitehill, who had access to the Beverley family papers at the Virginia Historical Society, the house was a tremendous financial drain and Robert Beverley tried unsuccessfully to sell or rent it. His son, James Bradshaw Beverley, to whom the house was given, only succeeded in selling it at the end of 1822. Prior to the sale, both James Beverley and his sister and her husband had lived at the house, known as Acrolophos, and later Beverley lived there with his new wife. It seems highly plausible that the wing with the Federal Period doorway could have been added during the Beverley ownership, to meet the needs of the various newlyweds who moved in. If it had been built then, presumably it would have been mentioned in the Beverley papers and discovered by Whitehill. Since it is not mentioned by Whitehill and he attributes the wing to a later owner, it is assumed that the Beverley papers do not mention any additions.

Beverley sold the estate to James Edward Calhoun, but according to Whitehill the actual purchaser was Calhoun's mother, Floride Calhoun (an alternative spelling). But it was her son-in-law, John C. Calhoun who was the house's most important, and only nationally significant occupant. John C. Calhoun, was secretary of war, had previously been a congressman, and would later be vice president. He also owned a house at 6th and E Streets, N.W., and he split the year between the two residences. Most notably, Calhoun entertained General Layette on his 1824 visit to the United States at both of his residences. Despite such prominent associations and Calhoun's elevated political position, the estate proved too expensive for Calhoun, just as it had for Beverley. Calhoun rented the house and then finally sold it in 1829 to Brooke Mackall.

Mackall was a Georgetown native and the son of a successful merchant. Mackall's career as an a government bureaucrat was less financially remunerative. In 1846, three years after his father's death, he sold his Georgetown estate, apparently unable to afford it solely on his salary.

The new owner, Georgetown merchant Edward Magruder Linthicum was the first owner who could afford to maintain and enlarge the property. As stated earlier, Walter Muir Whitehill believed the east wing was built by Linthicum to provide quarters for his newly married daughter, Katherine, and her husband, Josiah Dent. The husband and their son continued to live there after Katherine's death in 1862, Linthicum's death in 1869, and his widow's death in 1884. Six years later, the grandson, Edward Linthicum Dent, a failed entrepreneur, was forced to sell to estate to pay his debts.

In the absence of written records, contemporaneous descriptions, or definitively dated photographs, it is reasonable to question the nineteenth-century building chronology, specifically concerning the Linthicum changes, that Whitehill described for Dumbarton Oaks. For example, the east wing appears earlier than Whitehill thought and the mansard treatment seems later than he dated it. But in 1889, Mary S. Lockwood's Historic Homes in Washington: Its Noted Men and Women was published. opposite page 288 a small photograph shows the house with Mansard roof and Mansard tower. That book was published a year before Colonel and Mrs. Blount bought the estate from the trustees of Edward Linthicum Dent, proving Whitehill right in attributing the major alterations to Linthicum.

As the trustees for Dent, Gordon and Tayloe, had divided the 22 acre property into several parcels, Blount was able to buy only the house and surrounding six acres. He subsequently acquired additional land, but not as much as held by his predecessors.

Also unlike all of the previous owners, he was not from either Georgetown or Montgomery County, Maryland. He made his money in manufacturing farm equipment in Evansville, Indiana and after retiring in 1886, his family traveled in Europe for two years, then settled in Washington. The acquisition of a Georgetown mansion by wealthy people without Washington roots would again occur at this property and neighboring estates. Mr. Blount became quite active in a number of Washington financial, social, and educational institutions, including the National Geographical Society. Mrs. Blount was a charter member and later Secretary General of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The Blounts made extensive changes on the interior of the house, most notably the theater in the attic.

Whitehill, as usual, best summed up the early history of the house:

"When James E. Calhoun sold Oakley in 1829, the house had been through a variety of vicissitudes unusual for a handsome place under thirty years old. Dorsey, its builder, enjoyed if for less than four years before his Washington real estate speculations caught up with him. Then for seven years the Virginia Beverleys maintained it properly, and for ten more struggled to keep the roof tight and prevent the plaster from falling. With the South Carolina Calhouns, it changed from an asset to a liability in only six years; moreover they had never regarded it as anything more than a cool summer house, to be rented in winters if possible. For the next forty years the place was to be the year-round home of two very different permanent residents of Georgetown: a customs officer and a retail hardware dealer." (p. 47)

Whitehill went on to write that "previous owners had been chiefly concerned with keeping the house from falling to pieces. Linthicum, by contrast, greatly enlarged it and radically changed its appearance to make his prosperity clear." (p. 49)

Linthicum's changes, as well as those of the Blounts' and all other owners pale in comparison with those undertaken by the Blisses who bought the bulk of the property from Mrs. Blount in 1920 and the remainder in 1922. Robert Wood Bliss and his wife Mildred Barnes Bliss had the resources and sophistication to make Dumbarton Oaks into not simply a Georgetown estate, but one of international renown. Denys Sutton, editor of Apollo wrote: "The Blisses were of a type that has more or less vanished- the civilized amateur- and represented American patrician culture at its finest... The taste of the Blisses, Maecenases of distinction, was for the rare and unusual... Dumbarton Oaks... is an oasis of culture where the inanimate beauty of the objects within is complemented by the growing beauty of the gardens without." (page 2, Apollo)

It would be hard to overstate the involvement of the Blisses, especially Mrs. Bliss, in the design of the additions and the gardens. In fact, they were so active in the design of the museum wings that they, along with Waterman, signed the drawings, according to James Carder, manager, Dumbarton Oaks house collection and archives. Most interesting is that the Blisses were actively involved although they were living abroad during much of the time the early work was being done. As Robert Bliss was a diplomat, he and his wife lived in Sweden from 1923 to 1927 and in Argentina from 1927 to 1933 when he retired from the foreign service. So, much of the Bliss involvement in the design of the gardens and the McKim, Mead and White projects were "done" by overseas correspondence. The Blisses, who married in 1908, only lived at Dumbarton Oaks from 1933-1940 when they conveyed the property to Harvard, his alma mater. Although they were in Washington, D.C., from 1920-1923 they lived at Massachusetts Avenue near Dupont Circle. In all likelihood, the Blisses did not want to live at Dumbarton Oaks until the major work by Frederick Brooke to the main block of the house was done. After conveying the house, the Blisses lived in Santa Barbara at Mrs. Bliss's mothers estate until 1942. From 1942 until 1969 when Mrs. Bliss died, they lived at 28th and Q Streets, a few blocks from Dumbarton Oaks. (Mr. Bliss died in 1962.) They do not appear to have had any children.

Overall Dimensions: Dumbarton Oaks is a U-shaped, two story building with a tall attic, and basement; the concave side faces north, which is the rear facade. On the south facade, the main block is five bays wide with a large central entrance approached by a grand staircase. Set back one bay are wings to the east and west of the central block. These wings are three bays wide and consist of a one bay hyphen and a two bay end slightly projecting pavilion with a pedimented roof. The west bay is connected by a lower wing to the museum, garden library, and entrance wing of the complex. The east bay is connected by a lower wing to the one story orangery. To the-east of the orangery are paths to the extensive and varied gardens of Dumbarton Oaks which run primarily east of the house, but are also north of it. On the north facade, the two end wings project to the north, flanking a curved central bay which is on-axis with the front entrance. The central bay houses a rear entrance approached by a concrete stairs and landing. Neither the main nor rear entrance are used.

Directly west of the main block, attached through the low wing is the 1940 wing housing the entrance and museum galleries. Directly south of that wing is the 1963 Garden Library, with its tall, bow window bays. Returning to the entrance wing, which opens on the north to the enclosed courtyard housing the Byzantine collection. Directly east of that courtyard is the 1929 music room, the most impressive room at Dumbarton Oaks. North of the entrance wing is a corridor leading to the 1963 Pre-Columbian Wing, which is quite different, but nearly as compelling as the music room. From the orangery at the east end of the house, to the Garden library wing at the southwest corner, to the Pre-Columbian wing on the north, all sections of the building form one continuous structure accessible by openings between adjacent sections, built at different times, or by passages built as connectors.

Frederick H. Brooke was the architect for the extensive renovations carried out from 1921 to 1925, which included removal of mid to late nineteenth-century alterations, adding rear wing at the west end, refacing the exterior, and moving the servant and kitchen wing from the east end of the house, in the ell, to the west end of the house. Also, the two sets of stairs in gallery were added, replacing a stairs that ran along the north wall of the gallery.

Lawrence White of McKim, Mead and White designed the music room, east wing bay, and numerous service buildings north of the house.

Thomas Waterman in the 1940s added the west wings, entrance, and perimeter wall that marked the conversion of Dumbarton Oaks from the Blisses' residence into a Harvard research and museum. James Carder, Manager of the House Collection and Archives at Dumbarton Oaks, noted that the Blisses aswell as Waterman signed the drawings for these 1940s additions and that the Blisses were listed as designers and Waterman as architect.

Philip Johnson designed the Pre-Columbian museum wing, which opened in 1963. The same year, the Garden Library wing, designed by Wyeth and King, also of New York, opened.

First floor: A wide north-south hall ( entrance hall) runs from the formal front door (south) to the less formal garden door in the bow at the rear of the house. A longer, but much narrower east-west corridor (gallery) crosses the main hall at the rear. To the left (west) of the main hall is the director's office, formerly the dining room. Opposite it is the associate director's office; this oval space is also known as the salon. The east-west corridor on the west end opens onto the support staff offices and to the museum wing of the complex. At the opposite end of the corridor, it opens onto a wooden paneled library (study), which is adjacent to the associate director's office. The corridor also opens onto the rear wing at the east end of the house, which is the Founders' Room, also known as drawing, living, or commons room. It is now a reading room. At the extreme east end of the corridor is the passage to the orangery. The museum wing consists of garden library, entrance wing, connecting corridors, music room, Byzantine collection rooms, and Pre-Columbian wing.

Second floor: A large library occupies the space above the first floor main hall and flanking rooms. Secondary spaces off of the east-west corridor are offices.

Third floor (attic): Offices and book-stack areas.